What are the Root Causes of the Border Crisis?

By Robert Bernstein   |   April 22, 2021
In 1986, Robert Bernstein was a volunteer at the “National University of Engineering” in Managua, Nicaragua

“Radical” is often used to disqualify an idea as “extreme.” Did you know that it comes from the same origin as “radish” and means to “go to the root” of a problem?

Every night, the news is full of the crisis at the US-Mexico border. The “analysis” is limited to the immediate humanitarian issues along with the implication that we are being “invaded” by “alien” hordes.

Regarding the latter point: How does the U.S. compare with other countries in accommodating refugees? A few years ago, we were in Jordan and learned that nearly 10% of their country is refugees. The U.S.? It is less than one-tenth of a percent!

The question that is rarely asked and never answered: Why are these people fleeing here? What is the root cause? How bad would things have to be for you to leave all of your friends, family, and social support system to go to a hostile place with a different language and customs?

Do you remember the U.S. support for death squads, terrorists, and brutal dictators in Central America during the Reagan years? Not once have I heard this connection to the current crisis in the corporate news.

I have a dear friend Lucy who did human rights work in Nicaragua near the Honduran border with Witness for Peace in the 1980s. This was the war zone where Reagan funded terrorists to make raids from Honduras into Nicaragua to burn schools and hospitals and assassinate teachers and medical workers. Witness for Peace placed brave Americans and Europeans in this horrific war zone because the terrorists avoided their attacks in their presence.

The Honduran government wanted no part of this. So, Reagan paid off the Honduran military to destroy the democratic institutions of Honduras. In recent years, Lucy has worked inside Honduras. She tells me the situation is more terrifying now than being in the war zone in Nicaragua in the 1980s. Why? Because the violence is everywhere, no longer confined to a war zone.

In El Salvador and Guatemala, Reagan supported brutal governments that used death squads to terrorize the population. In Guatemala, one of the largest death squad organizers was called “Friends of the Country.” Many of the board members of Bank of America belonged to them. Bank manager Keith Parker said that shooting dissidents works very well. Really.

Thousands of refugees fled to the U.S. in the 1980s, many to Los Angeles. That is where many were forced into the gang culture that was unknown in Central America. When they returned to Central America the existing death squads merged with this gang culture. A perfect storm of terror that exists today.

Eight-year-old children at our border are not coming to take your jobs. As with my Jewish European ancestors, they were being sent out of a situation of almost certain death to a chance to live.

Before a solution can exist, don’t we first need to understand the problem?

Brazilian Archbishop Hélder Câmara once said, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”

Poverty and oppression in Central America come from nearly two centuries of U.S. support for a system that enforces cheap labor. For decades this included corporations such as United Fruit, later called Chiquita Brands. Yes, the origin of “banana republics.” A few wealthy landowners profited, and most people barely had enough to eat. They were denied any land to grow food for themselves.

Another thread of the immigrant crisis? Reagan dramatically decreased legal immigration and increased border enforcement. This grew worse after 9/11. For decades, Mexican farm workers legally came to the U.S. to do seasonal work and returned home. When those programs ended, they still came (illegally) and returned home. But the increase in border enforcement actually led to more workers staying in the U.S. instead of returning home.

What is the answer? Improving safety and living conditions in Central America. This means policies directed at economic development and justice. Rather than economic exploitation and oppression for profit. It means allowing more people to come to the U.S. legally to work and visit. It also means accepting people as refugees until the horrific situation in Central America improves.

I will add that there are currently millions of climate crisis refugees.

When you hear a news story, do you ask, “What is the root cause of that problem?” It should be a habit. I plan to do this with more issues here in the future.


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